The wok is a thousand-year-old Chinese creation, and there is nothing more traditional in Chinese cookery. Woks were first made of iron, later of carbon steel, and even later of aluminum, but whatever its material it was always, is always, shaped like an oversized soup plate. Due to its concave shape, its base fits right into the burner flame or heat source of a stove and makes it the ideal cooker for stir frying, pan frying, deep frying, steaming, blanching, and sauce making. It is the perfect cooking utensil. Though it is not a pot or a pan, it functions as both. Its shape permits foods to be stir-friedâ”tossed quickly through tiny amounts of oil so that the foods cook but do not become oily. Its shape permits the wok to be converted into an efficient steamer simply by placing bamboo steamers in its well. Wok cooking is natural cooking.
If you buy only one wok, it should be of carbon steel. Avoid those with nonstick finishes because they will not take an oil coating. Avoid plug-in electric woks because their heat cannot be controlled as precisely as is needed. Stainless-steel and aluminum woks are fine for steaming, but cannot compare in versatility with the carbon-steel wok.
A wok of carbon steel is not pretty when it is new, because of its coating of heavy, sticky oil, but once cleaned and seasoned properly, it is ideal and will last for years. As I said earlier, woks come in many sizes, but one 14 inches in diameter is the perfect all-purpose size.
A new carbon-steel wok should be washed in extremely hot water with a little liquid detergent. The interior should be cleansed with a sponge, the exterior with steel wool and scouring-type cleanser. Then it should be rinsed and, while wet, placed over a flame and dried with a paper towel to prevent instant rust. With the wok still over a flame, tip a tablespoon of peanut oil into its bowl and rub it around with a paper towel. This oiling procedure should be repeated until the paper towel is free of any traces of black residue. Your wok is now ready to cook with.
To break in a new wok, I usually cook a batch of julienned potatoes in it. That is a perfect way to season it, although a bit unorthodox. I pour in 4 cups of peanut oil, heat the wok until I see wisps of white smoke rising from it, then put in the potatoes. What a delicious way to break in a piece of cookware!
After that initial washing, detergents should never be used in the bowl of the wok. It should be washed with extremely hot water, perhaps with a stiff-bristled brush made especially for woks (such brushes are inexpensive and available where you buy your wok) or a sponge. After rinsing, it should be dried quickly with a paper towel, then placed over a flame for a thorough drying. If you have finished cooking in it, then reseason it by rubbing the bowl with a little peanut oil. Do this for the first fifteen to twenty uses, until the wok becomes shiny and dark-colored, which indicates that it is completely seasoned.
If the wok is to be used several times in the course of one cooking session, then it should be washed, wiped with a towel, and dried over heat after each use.
The carbon-steel spatula you use with your wok requires the same care.